PH HEROES: VAUXHALL ASTRA GTE 16V
The Astra GTE was a raucous hot hatch that did things its own way. Ollie Stallwood drives Vauxhall's answer to the Golf GTI...
If the looks of the GTE are anything to go by it was no wonder the MK2 Astra was once Britain's second most stolen car. It couldn’t have stood out more if it had tinsel hanging from the bumper and so it attracted thieves like a silver ring to a magpie.
The GTE had been around since the MK2’s launch in 1984 and had 130bhp but just 999kg to haul around. It sold well, thanks mainly to its handsome, well-proportioned looks, but towards the end of the eighties it was clear that more power was needed if the GTE was to have a crack at the dominant 16-valve Golf.
There was a time when you couldn’t move for this automotive equivalent of a white stiletto, but sadly most have now rusted away from the rear arches upwards. This is sad because even though the styling was lairy, and in white more Eighties than a neon shell suit, somehow the Astra pulled it off. Whatever way you look at it the GTE is an icon of the hot hatch glory days, the perfect antidote to the smug VW.
Inside it is mint, familiar, and surprisingly modern. Being a Vauxhall there is a smattering of goodies inside, including sunroof, electric windows, Recaro seats, and of course the digital dash that has ‘LCD ELECTRONICS’ proudly written across it. Push in the timewarp immobiliser key and then the key, before the 16v unit bursts into life immediately.
The leather-rimmed wheel only adjusts for rake and the positions available are knee-scraping and bus. As is traditional when testing a PH Hero it is raining outside, which should sort out that freshly-cleaned, glistening white bodywork in no time.
The 16v is easy to drive and doesn’t feel anywhere near its 24-year-old roots. The view down the road is underlined by the white bonnet with twin vents sunk into it. Feed in the power and you’ll notice that the Astra will light up its front tyres with no qualms on these greasy roads in both first and second, but stickwith it and you will find third. And this is where things start to get a little absurd.
Although the wheel feels fairly well weighted around town the steering lightens when you don’t need it to, leaving you with a feeling of vagueness the more speed the GTE happily piles on. How much speed exactly is unclear because the LCD dash doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with the velocity, throwing up numbers that probably relate to a different section of road.
This is not so. Faster bends can be taken with caution, dialling in the power progressively, but roundabouts expose the unresolved chassis that is clambering to control the huge wedges of power being thrown into it. The problem is unpredictability. You’re never quite sure what the car is going to do next, with all four corners having a mind of their own.
Later I find out that the dampers and tyres on the car are probably the originals, which may go some way to explaining the handling, but driving the car quickly takes nerves of steel. My recommendation is to go slow into the corners and ease the power in, before booting it in the straights to make up for lost time. It may sound unlikely but despite the idiosyncrasies of the handling this is still a fun car. It’s scorchingly rapid in a straight line and trying to get the best out of it in the corners requires guts and concentration.